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Think about how Americans often order pizza delivery. Now, imagine you had an arrangement to deliver lunch to your office every day. Imagine further that everybody in the office received a delivery every day, and so did everybody in the office next door. And imagine that it's Indian food.

A system somewhat like this has prevailed for a century in one of the world's largest cities, Mumbai. Every day in India's business capital Mumbai, thousands of delivery men, called dabba wallahs hand-deliver meals to doorsteps across the city. Elliot Hannon reports from Mumbai on how this traditional service is delivering meals from a 21st century source.

ELLIOT HANNON, BYLINE: For decades, Indian workers have had their lunches delivered, usually from home kitchens. The prices were cheap and the food traditional Indian fare. But that's changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF POURING RICE)

NITYANAND SHETTY: This is our main kitchen. It's like a 2,000 square foot kitchen. This guy is making the South Indian menu. He's making a beetroot dhosa. Then the other guy is making an egg white omelet over here.

HANNON: Nityanand Shetty is the head chef at Calorie Care, a high-end, health-obsessed delivery joint.

SHETTY: It's a new trend that's been started. It's a traditional dabba wallah, but at a premium kind of a thing, where the customer is conscious about what he's eating; he's not bothered about what price he's paying. So, the delivery chain remains the same, but the food, where it is coming from has changed.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLENDER)

SHETTY: The kitchen starts at night, 11 o'clock. The food comes out of the kitchen somewhere around 2, 2:30, 3 o'clock. Then the packing guys will start packing their food.

HANNON: It's a complicated process with hundreds of different meals, all with specific calorie counts. Calorie Care relies on software to keep everything straight. After a night of cooking and a morning of packing, each meal is put into a small metal canister, or tiffin, in time for the dabba wallahs pickup.

So when he comes at 9 o'clock, everything has to be ready for him because they are on a very tight schedule. The dabba wallahs have a huge network. That's the whole reason why we still use dabba wallahs. And they're very effective.

(SOUNDBITE OF BANGING)

HANNON: Right on time, Kishan Palvar arrives for the pickup from Calorie Care. He's one of 5,000 dabba wallah deliverymen who ferry some 200,000 lunches to offices across the city. It works a lot like Takeout Taxi. The couriers make 500 rupees, or about $10, per person for a month of deliveries.

Palvar picks up several dozen lunches here. To make sure each lunch pail ends up at the right place, each container has a hieroglyphic-like coding system painted on the lid.

KISHAN PALVAR: Yeah, code number, yes, 94 M 1.

HANNON: Palvar checks the codes, scoops up his cargo and heads outside to load up.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLANKING)

HANNON: He clips the containers to the handlebars of his bicycle and starts his 45-minute cycle to the train station.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

HANNON: At the station, the platform is jammed and so are the trains.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)

HANNON: Three dabba wallahs haul trays the size of dinner tables from the doorway of a commuter train. Some are transferred to other trains to go to different parts of the city. Lunches can be transferred three or four times before finally ending up on desktops of customers like Arif Bandukwala, who sits in a back office of a packaging plant waiting for his vegetarian entree.

ARIF BANDUKWALA: I get my lunch everyday. Packing a lunch and bringing it, it doesn't serve the purpose. And also what I like about the food is it's less of salt, so it suits our appetite.

HANNON: Before he leaves, the delivery man collects yesterday's container and the process starts all over again for tomorrow.

For NPR News, I'm Elliot Hannon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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